Norfolk History - Past Times - Yesterdays - Robert Hales - The Norfolk Giant of West Somerton in Norfolk and Bed and Breakfast in West Somerton
Norfolk History and Past Times - Yesterdays - Edith Cavell
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Picture (c) by John Ashley Photography
“There be giants in Norfolk.” A gravelly Norfolk voice declared. The voice belonged to the only other occupant in the inn (apart from myself and my husband of course). The wizened old Norfolk gentleman with twinkly black button eyes had spoken. We were settled in two comfortable chairs in one of the many Norfolk inns that hug the coastal road on the B1159 between Happisburgh (pronounced Harzbro or Haizbro) and Winterton on sea (pronounced winterton-on-sea).

 It had been one of those days when the weather couldn’t make its mind up. Was it going to be a summer day, or would it continue to hold on to its Spring chill. My husband chose not to respond as he was still eating and his mouth was full of sausage and chips. Unusually I had finished my lunch before him, though this may have been because he chose to pinch half my chips when he saw that I was not going to eat them all.
 
We had frequented this inn before; normally at a weekend when it was hard to find a chair on which to sit let alone a table on which to perch with our chosen fayre. But it was a Tuesday and still not yet in season so when we had pushed open the wooden door to enter, luckily remembering the need to duck, we had been greeted with a vast array of empty tables and chairs with the only other occupant this old gentleman who had just spoken.
 
The landlord had greeted us as soon as we had entered and we both believed that he had recognised us from one of our other visits. After he had placed our two plates containing, in my opinion, an overly generous portion of sausage and chips he had disappeared out the back. He assumed, perhaps, that we would be occupied for at least 10-15 minutes with our munching. Which might mean that he hadn’t recognised us as he would have known that my husband normally only takes 8 minutes to consume whatever is put in front of him regardless of its size.

I turned to the old gentleman and politely enquired ‘Really?’ I had learned not to be too ready to dismiss any strange tales made by these friendly Norfolk folk after having pooh- poohed my neighbour when she had told me that there was a pyramid in Norfolk. Only to find on a visit to the National Trust property of Blicking Hall that she had been speaking the honest truth. “What real ones” I pursued. Which, thinking about it, was less than an original statement. “Of course real ones” the elderly gentlemen said “What other kind are there?” “Where are they? Where do they live and how many are there?” I enthused. The old man’s eyes appeared to twinkle even more deeply, obviously pleased with my keen response. “Live?” said he “Well they don’t live, well not any more. They’re all dead now but it was an entire family. An entire family of giants.” My husband had now finished his last chip; swirling it in the last remnants of tomato ketchup. My husband would quite happily have tomato sauce with everything if given the opportunity and I was always careful to make certain that our cupboards were stocked with at least two bottles of it. So that as he finished the first, the second was ready and waiting.
 
“So where DID they live?” My husband asked. “Why West Somerton of course.” the old man said. He answered as though he expected my husband to have known this. “Down yonder.” He pointed vaguely in the direction of one of the small windows that overlooked the inn’s car park. “You can still see their graves.” he said.   So it was that as we left the inn, instead of heading home to our house on the hill (one of the few in Norfolk) on the Norfolk Coast, we pointed the nose of our little MG in the direction of West Somerton and the church of St. Mary’s.

If you have ever been to West Somerton then you will know that it is a small, pretty little village made up of a few cottages and houses that straddle the B1159 road. The church of St. Mary’s is slightly outside the village along a narrow sandy lane with a pocket handkerchief-sized car park.  The building is attractive with a round fifty-five foot tower all done in a cream colour, which looks like it should have Rapuntzel leaning out from its topmost window with all her long hair. The backdrop of the chuchyard was slightly incongruous as peeping over the churchyards wall were a number of ultra modern up to-date wind-turbine machines with their turning white sails.

 
The sun decided to come out for a spell as we traipsed through the long grass of the churchyard. My husband, from his slightly loftier position of six foot one, spotted what appeared to be a sarcophagus-like tomb on four feet to the north of the east end of the church. We both made a beeline for it.

And there he was:- Robert Hales ‘The Norfolk Giant’ surrounded by the graves of his family and relations. Back home, and yet more tomato sauce this time with a nice cheese omelette made by yours truly, I decided to try and find out some more details about Mr. Robert Hales and his life in Norfolk. I found some conflicting evidence but this, so far, is what I have learned.

Robert Hales was born to William and Ann Hales on 2nd May 1820 in the village of West Somerton. He was one of nine children. Their home was a cottage near the post office which unfortunately was demolished in 1963. Both his mother and father were over six feet tall, his five sisters averaged around six foot three and his brothers six foot five inches. However, one of his sisters Mary, measured seven foot two inches. Robert himself grew to a dizzy height of seven feet eight inches; a Giant by any standard. He weighed-in at over 32 stone with a chest and waist measurement which exceeded 64 inches. According to all accounts Robert was a good looking fellow, in perfect proportion, albeit rather tall. In the same village there were two sisters, Mary and Anne Laskey, who it is said measured eight foot and seven foot six inches respectively. A grave to one Mary Laskey can be seen in the churchyard close to the Hales graves. So one wonders if there was something in the water!
 
Roberts father William was a farmer but Robert initially became a Norfolk wherryman. Wherries were the sailing craft peculiar to Norfolk with a shallow hull which made navigating the still waters of the Broads easier. They were used to ship grain, coal, timber and liquor between Norwich and Great Yarmouth and all the villages in between.

Then at the age of thirteen he enlisted in the Royal Navy but some three and a half years later they paid him off as he had become too big, probably for the ship and the cook! So Robert took to the road in a bright yellow caravan and exhibited himself at the Tombland Fair in Norwich and also on the Britannia Fair in Great Yarmouth along with other curiosities. His sister Mary also accompanied him though at some later stage they parted as Mary is said to have died of new pneumonia in Guernsey at quite a young age.
 
Robert at the age of twenty was presented to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The Queen remarked on his likeness to George the fourth her uncle. In 1848 Robert Hales took his physique to New York, the trip is said to have been sponsored by the American Museum who at that time was being run by Barnum. This is the famous PT Barnum who went on to become the Barnum and Bailey circus. In 1848 he collected curiosities from around the world some genuine, some fake and some even dead. a mermaid, some giants and dwarfs. One dwarf was the well-known General Tom Thumb. Barnum also employed the tallest woman in the world one Anna Swan was billed at a height of eight feet. Robert Hales toured America for two years bringing in huge crowds wherever he went.
 
He returned to England as a celebrity and was invited to Buckingham Palace where he, again, met Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and six of their children. The Queen even presented him with a gold watch and chain in memory of his visit which he wore until he died. I understand that some of Queen Victoria’s children were rather alarmed at meeting a real 'live giant'. Princess Louise who was only four years old at the time of his visit, was 'much alarmed'. They needn’t have worried as by all account Robert was a very gentle, even-tempered man. Tired of touring Robert became the landlord of the Craven Head Tavern in Drury Lane, London. Though I have also found reports that his inn was in Sheffield but I think it more likely to have been London, especially as I have managed to find reference to a Craven Head Tavern near Drury Lane. He eventually came back to Norfolk in a caravan at Cumber Corner at Beighton. As his health deteriorated he sold leaftlets about his life and times both in Norwich and Great Yarmouth. He died in 1863 in Great Yarmouth and his body was returned to his home of West Somerton to be buried. 
   
So there we have it. “There BE ‘Giants’ in Norfolk”.”The old gentleman had spoken the truth. The wording on the tomb - "Beneath are deposited the mortal remains of Robert Hales the Norfolk Giant whose height was 7 feet 8 inches. He died at Great Yarmouth on 22nd November 1865. Render the dust must be your bed, vain are opposing powers. The wise the strong and crowned heads must lie as low as ours. This tomb is erected by an affectionate widow. His age is actually displayed on the tomb as being 50 but according to my arithmetic he was in fact only 43.

Additional information on Robert Hales from a Relative!
 Picture (c) by John Ashley Photography